As Others Abandon Plains,
ORT YATES, N.D. In writing the obituary of the Great Plains, social historians have looked out at the abandoned ranches, collapsed homesteads and dying towns huddled against the wind in a sea of grass and seen an epic failure.
And the numbers do tell a compelling story. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains lost population in the last 10 years. An area equal to the size of the original Louisiana Purchase, nearly 900,000 square miles, now has so few people that it meets the 19th-century Census Bureau definition of frontier, with six people or fewer per square mile. And a large swath of land has slipped even further, to a category the government once defined as vacant.
But something else is under way from the Badlands of the Dakotas to the tallgrass fields of Oklahoma: a restoration of lost landscape and forgotten people, suggesting that European agricultural settlement of big parts of the prairie may have been an accident of history, or perhaps only a chapter.
As the nearly all-white counties of the Great Plains empty out, American Indians are coming home, generating the only significant population gains in a wide stretch of the American midsection. At the same time, the frontier, as it was called when it was assumed that the land would soon be spotted with towns and farms, is actually larger than it has been since the early 20th century.
These changes have been under way for decades. But they have reached a point ó 108 years after Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that the American frontier was closed, with the buffalo herds wiped out and native populations down to a few tribes ó that there are now more Indians and bison on the Plains than at any time since the late 1870's.
Indians, of course, are still a fraction of the overall Plains population, making up just under 8 percent of the population in the state, Oklahoma, where they have the biggest population, 272,601 people.
But while many Plains counties lost 20 percent or more of their population, the overall Indian population grew by 20 percent in North Dakota, 23 percent in South Dakota, 18 percent in Montana, 20 percent in Nebraska and 12 percent in Kansas. Some of this can be attributed to better counting and higher birthrates, but tribal officials say there has been steady in-migration dating to the mid-1980's.
In North Dakota alone, 47 of the 53 counties lost population. Among the handful that gained people were three counties populated primarily by Indians.
In South Dakota, half of the counties lost people. But the second- fastest-growing county, Shannon, is in the heart of Indian country, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a county that is 94 percent Indian and grew by 26 percent in the last census.
And much of Montana is nearly as open today as it was when Lewis and Clark explored there nearly 200 years ago. All but four of the counties in the flat eastern part of the state lost population; of those with gains, three contain Indian reservations.
As Indians have moved home, on or near reservation lands, whites have fled the counties that were opened to homesteading in the last of the great Western land rushes in the early 20th century.
The whitest county in the nation, Slope County, N.D., is down to 767 people; all but three of its residents are white. By contrast, in 1915, six years after the prairie was opened to ranchers and farmers through the Enlarged Homestead Act, Slope County was bustling, with 4,945 people. Now the county seat, Amidon, has 25 people, and the population density, less than one person per square mile, is well below the 19th- century Census Bureau definition of land that is vacant or wilderness.
Much of North Dakota has a ghostly feel to it: empty homesteads and occasional schoolhouses litter the land, with caved-in roofs and grass growing where there used to be front porches. The wind blows so hard that a cup of coffee brought outside develops whitecaps.
Cattle ranching and farming of wheat, barley and corn still prevail, especially on large corporate farms in the middle and southern plains. But in Slope, Hettinger, Adams, Grant, Burke, Divide, Garfield or any of the hundreds of other plains counties that seem to have one foot in the grave, land is being left to the wind and sparse rain.
In publicly owned prairie land, the native grasses and wildflowers have returned, and species like prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls and bison have made comebacks. Much of this land will never be plowed again, for a third of the nation's 3.7 million acres of national grassland is designated roadless under a measure started by President Bill Clinton over the objections of many in the region's Congressional delegation. Other parts are managed by private groups like the Nature Conservancy, which has been buying up ranches and homesteads.
At the turn of the century, only a few hundred buffalo were left in the West. Now there are 300,000, and more than 30 tribes in the northern Plains are controlling large herds on land where bison, unlike cattle, need no help to flourish. A third of the nation's 31 accredited Indian colleges offer bison management.
Indians have the highest rate of diabetes in the nation. Part of the overall restoration of the Plains is an effort to get bison meat, which is low in cholesterol and fat, back into the Indian diet.
Mr. Lake, a Santee Sioux from Nebraska, has returned to the Plains after living for years in Los Angeles. He likes the slower pace, the connection to other Indians, the low prices. He winces at the description that the historian Turner used to describe frontier land as it became populated with Europeans. It was, Turner wrote, "the place where civilization meets savagery."
Many Indians have moved back to reservations because of jobs in the casinos, the so-called new buffalo, which have been the main economic salvation. On the Standing Rock Reservation, for example, the casino is the county's biggest job provider, employing 376 people, and it has expanded six times since it opened in 1993.
But Indian reservations remain among the poorest places in the nation, with high unemployment, high out-of-wedlock birthrates and chronic drug and alcohol abuse.
Still, life has improved. Tourism has increased. People come to look at bison, tribal officials say; others pay up to $2,500 for the right to hunt them. People interested in the Plains tribes' history are also drawn to the prairie.
The re-emergence of a Great Plains of Indians and bison was foretold in 1987 by two Rutgers University professors, Frank J. Popper and his wife, Deborah E. Popper. They said white depopulation would accelerate, as it became clear that farming and building towns on the arid Plains was "the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history."
They proposed a "Buffalo Commons" in the empty counties, an open range populated by the species that once thundered over the land. People throughout the prairie scorned their idea, and the Poppers became the objects of intense hatred. But their idea has been revived of late, with little rancor.
While the Poppers may ultimately be proved right in several respects, they were wrong in one major sense: In their vision, government would be the driving force, buying land and bringing buffalo back, then turning some of it over to Indians to manage.
Now, in a twist, it is government that keeps the white farming and ranching communities alive, through annual subsidies of more than $20 billion. Many historians have long argued that white settlement, particularly of the northern Plains, was largely government-induced from the start, through subsidies to railroads and homesteaders.
Indians and bison have returned by self-initiative and free enterprise, helped by the success of casinos.
The idea of Manifest Destiny in reverse is scoffed at by many people, especially in the dying counties.
But a sense of irrevocable change pervades the northern Plains. "There is a lot of that Buffalo Commons idea that's probably true," said Gov. John Hoeven of North Dakota, a Republican elected on a pledge to revitalize the state. "It's never going to look like it did before, when all the farms and ranches were healthy."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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